By Lloyd Jones
CONWAY — An out-of-this-world experience.
That's what nine Kennett High School students had at the Johnson Space Center, where they were treated like VIPs during a visit to Houston last month.
"I was telling the students the whole time, 'This doesn't happen, you don't get opportunities like this,'" Andy Shaw, machine tool teacher at the Mount Washington Valley Career and Technical Center told the Sun last week after the Eagles got back. "Seventy-five percent of the way through the tour, we were in this giant warehouse, and you could see all these people up above in a glass enclosure. Our guide said, 'Oh, they're on the (regular) tour.' We got amazing treatment."
The Eagles, who were recognized by NASA for hardware they created for the International Space Station, got a behind-the-scenes tour of just about everything at the center, including touring Mission Control and sitting behind the controls of the space shuttle.
The trip, which took place April 27-30, is one they will not soon forget
Honored were Kennett seniors Cole Schoonover (team captain for the project), Shawn Kenny, Jamie Kelemen, Dillon Dascoulias, Aaron Lamar and Cain Drouin; juniors Josh Rivers and Zac Phaneuf; and sophomore Nick Heysler for the hardware (nuts, bolts and latches) they created to hold lockers together on the space station. The lockers head to space next month.
Fifteen schools were recognized, but Kennett was the only one from outside Texas.
Shaw and machining students are in their fourth year partnering with HUNCH (High school students United with NASA to Create Hardware). The students were selected to participate as result of their achievements at a SkillsUSA competitions.
In each of the previous three springs, the Eagles were invited to Goddard Space Center in Maryland. This time, however, HUNCH founder Stacy Hale summoned them to Houston.
He greeted Virginia Schrader, career and tech center director, Shaw and the students April 28 at the HUNCH offices on the fourth floor of Building Four at the Space Center.
The NASA astronauts, they were told, work on the sixth floor of the same building.
Hale was so impressed with the Kennett students' work, he tabbed them for a special assignment.
"He wants us to make hardware for the handrails in the International Space Station," Shaw said. "There are three parts that need to be built, and Stacy asked us to pick two of the three, and if we can get them, we'll be able to display a NASA-certified from flight (to the space station) handrail in our school for a year."
Hale also delivered the Eagles a challenge: If they get 12 parts done by the end of the school year, he'll come all the way from Texas for graduation," Shaw said.
Shaw and the students started May 5.
"Every year, I say this can't get any better, and it does," said Shaw, noting that he learned 15 former HUNCH students became interns at NASA and then got jobs with NASA.
One former HUNCH intern, who graduated from Mississippi State University last December, was hired in January by NASA as a mechanical engineer and now works as a flight mechanic who disassembles the replica of the International Space Station.
"He documents the best way to repair or assemble it," Shaw said. "When something happens onboard the International Space Station, he's the one who talks the astronauts through situations. I'm hoping in five years that's going to be Cole (Schoonover, just named the MWV Career and Technical Center Education Student of the Year and who will attend the University of New Hampshire in the fall).
"Both Stacy and Dr. Florence Gold (who visited the Eagles last fall) said they will give personal references for each of our students, which is pretty special," Shaw said. "This is opening doors that don't open for others."
The Eagles also were given another opportunity.
Associate Administrator for Strategy and Plans Thomas Cremins, second in charge of the space station, and Gold told Shaw to put together a care package that they will send to the International Space Station. "It will come back and be given to us. We're trying to come up with ideas of what we want to put in it."
On April 29, the Eagles presented their work at a ceremony attended by NASA, including International Space Station astronauts, and HUNCH staff.
"The people from NASA were blown away by our work and were extremely complimentary. It was very humbling for me, and as a teacher it reinforces my reminding the students that all the little details matter.
"You've been around sports teams that play in the championships. For our team, this was our championship, and to get praise from NASA was our reward. I think we all had a little more pep in our step that night."
Shaw, Schrader and the students are still talking about the tour they got.
"We went to the neutral buoyancy lab, which houses the second biggest pool in the world," Shaw said. "It holds 6.2 million gallons of water, is 125 feet wide, 40 feet deep (the deepest pool on the planet) and is 250 feet long.
They also got to see a simulation of Mission Control.
Shaw said HUNCH offers $325,000 in scholarships annually.
"There are roughly 2,200 HUNCH students in the country, and only 800 people apply each year," he said. "I will be surprised if in the next five years that we don't have one or two Eagles working for NASA."
During their trip to Texas, the group also went to Topgolf, played laser tag and went indoor skydiving.